“Refugees’ stories hit close to home”

(Published on March 15, 2016 on BlueDevilHUB.com)

About: With two other journalists, I interviewed an Afghan refugee in Sacramento as the focus for a story about refugees and their struggles. We weaved in other elements through text, pull quotes, interactive graphics and photos. Some features are not compatible with this website; view the pull quotes and interactivity of the graphic at the link above.

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Afghan refugee Abdul escaped a dangerous situation in his home country and arrived in the U.S. last November with his family. Abdul is friendly, well-educated and speaks English–skills that should help him in the United States. Still, like many refugees, he is struggling to adapt to a new life. (Photo: K. Sturm)

By Kellen Browning, Claire Alongi and Katrina Sturm,
BlueDevilHUB.com Staff–

In the living room of a small apartment, Abdul sits on a worn couch near a window overlooking a run-down part of Sacramento. The view from the window isn’t much: a parking lot and a dumpster. The small lot is fenced in and lined with trees that block the sight of a small barbeque and boarded-up shop front next door.

None of this bothers 23-year-old Abdul. Excited to have guests, he serves tea and snacks. Smiling, he speaks animatedly in accented English.

Abdul, who has asked that his last name not be included, arrived in the United States as a refugee last November from Afghanistan with his 20-year-old wife and one-year-old son.

The son of a truck driver and a hotel cleaner, Abdul had a good life in Afghanistan. He picked up English at a young age from foreign guests at his mother’s hotel, and was teaching seven English classes per day by the age of 13.

A dangerous profession

The refugee is also a computer whiz, and taught computer programming and Microsoft Office. Abdul laughed at recalling that many of his students, in their mid-20s, were being taught by a child.

“When I finished teaching, they said that ‘You are the best,’ ” he remembered.

[pullquote]“I said that my life was in danger.” ~Abdul, Afghan refugee[/pullquote]

Abdul says some of his students suggested a way for Abdul to make money–an internet cafe.

“When a person wants to have access to Internet there, in my country,” he explained, “they don’t have Internet on his mobile [phone]. Just they are coming to the net cafe.”

The agreement was that Abdul would earn what people spent to use the cafe–one hour for 50 rupees, which is about $0.75 USD–but was told he had to “make all the computers, all the cablings.”

“I said ‘it’s fine for me, I can make,’” he said. “Then, I made. I made a net cafe. I made three computers by myself–I bought from the market a motherboard, also a processor, RAM and the part supplies, casings.”

Abdul said it took him just one day to make those three computers and install programs in a total of 12–when he was still just a teenager.

(Photo: K. Sturm)

Abdul’s talent for technology served as a source of income, but his frequent contact with foreign companies while working for a tech business made him a threat to the Afghan government. (Photo: K. Sturm)

“But I am hard worker,” he said.

Between the Internet cafe and more computer programming classes, Abdul was making about 15,200 rupees a month–approximately $227 USD.

His success did not go unnoticed; Abdul worked for three years at a technology company called Victy, and for a year and a half at a company called Net Links.

Both companies had Abdul travel through 34 different provinces in Afghanistan, working with foreign companies, which his father cautioned Abdul against. Soon enough, Abdul’s work caught up with him. He says the country’s Ministry of Defense views foreign people as “our enemies” and threatens those who work with them.

While at Victy, Abdul sought out a co-worker he knew was a U.S. citizen.

“I said that my life was in danger,” he said. “She said that ‘I will give you a paper, so you should apply for that; then you will see what will happen.’ Then I applied for that and I came here.”

It took two years for Abdul’s application for refugee status to be processed. During that time, he married his wife (Abdul asked that his wife not be interviewed or named) and spent all his money on the wedding.

Starting over

Though now out of reach of the Afghanistan government, Abdul and his family still had to overcome the challenges involved with resettling in a brand new country and beginning a new life.

After flying from Kabul to Sacramento, Abdul stayed at a friend’s apartment for two days before connecting with Rebecca Brown, who works for the Sacramento chapter of World Relief, a non-profit refugee resettlement organization.

Brown says Sacramento is a hotspot for refugees.

“[The Sacramento] office is actually resettling the most in the [United] States right now; out of all the resettling agencies–not just World Relief but out of everyone–World Relief Sacramento is resettling the most,” she said.

Brown was formerly a resettlement associate, which entailed providing refugees transport to requisite appointments and ensuring those appointments went smoothly. Now, she’s a caseworker, and handles financial aspects of the refugee transition.

One of those aspects is “welcome money,” which is provided to World Relief by the federal government. Brown’s organization pays for initial refugee necessities like lodging, food, clothes and furniture.

[pullquote]“[Refugees are] coming from really bad situations and any help we can give them they’re so grateful for.” ~Rebecca Brown, World Relief caseworker[/pullquote]

The balance of the “welcome money” ($3,375 in Abdul’s case) is given to the family to spend.

But resettlement agencies don’t just give refugees money and leave. In fact, Abdul and his family have developed an unusually close relationship with Brown.  

When Abdul and his family arrived, they were paired with Brown, who at the time was still working as a resettlement associate. As she drove him to and from appointments, they began to develop a friendly bond.

So when Abdul needed a place to stay when all the other host homes were occupied, it was Brown who stepped up to the plate.  

“We were just getting desperate, so the housing coordinator at the time reached out to the staff and said ‘Is anyone willing?’ ” Brown said. “I talked to my dad about it because he has a big heart for the Afghan community, too, so I knew he would be okay. And that’s how [Abdul and his family] came to live with us.”

It was unusual at first to be sharing a house with people from a very different culture, but Brown enjoyed it. The experience, along with her transition from resettlement associate to caseworker, has reinforced her drive to help refugees and spread awareness of their struggle to the public.

“[Refugees are] coming from really bad situations and any help we can give them they’re so grateful for,” she said. “They’re not taking our jobs, because the jobs they take are usually jobs that you don’t want. […] I think a negative view of refugees makes me sad because [other people] don’t understand the full picture sometimes, and if there’s a way we can get that word out there, that’s what I want to do.”

After 15 days in Davis, World Relief was able to set Abdul up with an inexpensive apartment in Sacramento.

From refugee to aid worker

World Relief isn’t the only organization working to help refugees; Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services (SFBFS) is another group that assists refugees in their transition to life in the U.S.

Nematullah Sarvary and his family, also from Afghanistan, arrived in the U.S. with the help of SFBFS.  Now, more than a year later, Sarvary works with the organization, helping refugees much like himself adjust to life in a new country.

[pullquote]“It hurts a little bit [to leave your family behind], but it’s worth it to save your life.” ~Nematullah Sarvary, Afghan refugee and SFBFS worker[/pullquote]

Sarvary’s path to becoming a refugee began many years ago. In 2010, he was employed by the Afghan government as an interpreter, and also provided cultural advice to foreign governments. Sarvary worked closely with the U.S. government in particular.

Sarvary knew that his job put him in peril. He faced the same dangers as Abdul–he was working with outsiders, and that made him a threat by association.

“If someone is working for a government in Afghanistan that is a kind of risk that he is accepting for himself, especially when it comes to working for [foreign] forces and [particularly] for U.S. armed forces,” Sarvary explained. “It means you are dealing with your life.”

Sarvary’s situation became even more dire when he was let go from his job with the government. His unemployed status meant that he was home most of the time–essentially, a sitting duck.  

At this point Sarvary was seeking refugee status for himself and his family; it took nearly three and a half years for the visa to be completed.

Even though Sarvary had a U.S. tie in Sacramento, it didn’t make the transition any less difficult.  Still, Sarvary knew leaving Afghanistan was the best option.

(Graphic: N. Pugh and K. Sturm. Sources: United Nations Refugee Agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)

“It hurts a little bit [to leave your family behind], but it’s worth it to save your life,” he said.

Sarvary seems to have acclimated well.

“[The U.S.] is my new home now,” he said with certainty.

Now that he has found his footing, Sarvary has taken his experience as a refugee and channeled it into his work with SFBFS.

His new life also presents his daughters, ages two and four, with opportunities they never would have had access to back in Afghanistan.

“[Educational opportunities are] a good thing that [my daughters] will obtain here. In my country, they will not even get a chance to have an education at all. That will not be as much good as it is here. My kids will get the best education possible,” Sarvary said, with a touch of pride.

Abdul agrees that women’s rights are very different in the United States. In Afghanistan, he says, “some people are beating or hitting wives or daughters” and there are a generation of girls who are illiterate.

Sarvary has also managed to avoid much of the anti-refugee sentiment that has saturated politics and media of late. He doesn’t quite understand; after all, aren’t refugees and the U.S. on the same side?

“Those people that escape from their country, they’re escaping from the same people the
Americans are,” he said. “They are leaving their country because the insurgents are killing them.  And the U.S. government is also fighting against those who are killing innocent people.”

An ongoing conflict

[pullquote]“Our resolution made very clear that we felt the United States has a moral obligation to assist Syrian civilians.” ~California State Senator Lois Wolk[/pullquote]

Still, the issue of whether or not to accept more refugees has played a large role in the 2016 presidential election. Most notably, Republican candidate Donald Trump in December called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

In January, the U.S. Senate failed to pass bill H.R. 4038, which passed the House of Representatives and would have placed restrictions on accepting Syrian and Iraqi refugees; proponents viewed the stricter protocols as a safeguard against terrorist infiltration.

Many Davisites were shocked when local U.S. Representative John Garamendi voted in favor of the bill. In response to the outcry, Garamendi posted an explanation of his decision on his website.

I saw this vote as an opportunity to assure the American public that we are thoroughly vetting refugees,” Garamendi wrote. “In America, we know who our refugee populations are, and if bringing that knowledge up to the cabinet level in a more systemized way helps prevent overreactions that would stop future refugees altogether, so be it.”

Garamendi stressed that he supports aiding refugees.

“I would never vote for a bill that I thought stopped our refugee programs,” he said.

By contrast, California State Senator Lois Wolk, who lives in Davis, was one of the principal authors of Senate Resolution 52: a unanimous, bipartisan exhortation from the State Senate urging President Barack Obama and the United States Congress to accept more Syrian refugees.

“Our resolution made very clear that we felt the United States has a moral obligation to assist Syrian civilians,” Wolk told The HUB.

Wolk explained that the states handle refugee aid and assistance that comes from the U.S. Department of State. Information from the California Department of Social Services Refugee Programs Bureau, provided by Wolk’s office, shows that Sacramento County is one of eight California counties considered “refugee-impacted,” meaning it has received 400 or more refugee arrivals in the last five years.

“If you’re high impact,” Wolk explained, “you get more refugee assistance.”


Abdul, the oldest of five children, had to leave most of his family behind when he fled Afghanistan. He talks to his father frequently on the phone, and eventually hopes to reunite with them.

Hope for the future

Fortunately for Abdul, his technical skills have paid off; after months of phone calls and job searching, Apple recently hired him to work in its refurbishing department.

“Right now I just am thinking to make a good life in here,” he said.

But he’s worried that his family is in danger. Abdul recently learned that relatives are being questioned by the government about his disappearance; he has exhorted his father to escape to Tajikistan or another nearby country.

That explains Abdul’s urge to find a job; he has promised his father that he will use his salary to pay for his family to join him in the U.S.

“I have one concern in my life,” he said. “That’s my family.”

“Soccer scuffle leads to suspensions”

(Published on BlueDevilHUB.com on Nov. 20, 2014)

About: When soccer players were suspended for swarming a referee, I interviewed a suspended player and the Athletic Director. I incorporated a HUB photo and a courtesy photo, and linked to video. Per publication policy, I named disciplined students because they had been named in other publications and gave consent.

By Kellen Browning,
Bluedevilhub.com Editor—

DHS soccer players cope after losing the section championship game 2-1 to Oak Ridge. An incident during the game resulted in the later suspension of a number of DHS players.

DHS soccer players sophomore Matteo Sorrentino and junior Ricky Gonzales cope after losing the section championship game 2-1 to Oak Ridge. An incident during the game resulted in the later suspension of a number of DHS players. (Photo: T. Oide)

Trailing 2-1 in the Sac-Joaquin Section championship soccer game against Oak Ridge, Davis High players thought they had a chance when the ball hit the arm of an Oak Ridge player inside his own penalty box during stoppage time.

“I was actually so sure [the referee would] call the penalty I had started to walk over to take it when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my teammates running to the referee in dismay,” junior Francis Avoce said.

Avoce and six of his teammates were later suspended from school for several days due to the incident, which saw the DHS team crowd the referee, arguing with him for a penalty shot.

“I rushed to him as several of my teammates already had, and confronted him, asking him if he had seen [the play] or not, not using profanity or derogatory language, but nevertheless doing so in a demanding fashion,” Avoce said.

“Next thing I know, the referee is backing up amidst a crowd of our players and begins to hand out yellow cards, which is when I begin to move away from the scene realizing nothing good will come of it.”

Avoce was called to the office Wednesday, Nov. 19 and told that his use of profanity, his apparent aggression and his disruption of a school event led to his suspension, although he disputes these claims.

“Being suspended from school is not a proportional punishment for the wrong I’ve committed,” Avoce said, noting that he was not directly involved with the bump caught on video that showed goalkeeper Pablo Guarnizo in apparent physical contact with the referee, and that he was the first to congratulate the other team after the game, which “shows I stayed true to codes of sportsmanship which Davis adheres to.”

Athletic Director Jeff Lorenson declined to comment on whether he believes the soccer players’ suspensions are appropriate, but said that “the actions after [the questionable call] were just not of the code of conduct and standard of DHS athletics.”

DHS students pose in their "Free Francis" shirts, a protest of the suspension of soccer players.

DHS students pose in their “Free Francis” shirts; a protest of the soccer players’ suspension. (Courtesy: D. Johnson)

“I’m interested in ensuring that we put positive student athletes out on the field that can control their emotions,” Lorenson said. “It’s important that we educate all of our athletes, and that’s what we take away from situations like this.”

Lorenson cleared up the rumor that the soccer team would be banned from league play next year.

“The team is not being banned or barred from participation. It’s rumored and reported that there’s possibility of a probation period for the team; that does not mean denial of participation,” Lorenson said.

Lorenson reminds students that even off campus, they have obligation to represent the school and must still follow school rules.

“It’s important to know as an athlete that athletic contests are school-sponsored events. Therefore, student handbooks, athletic handbooks and education code govern your behavior, just like they would at lunch, just like they would during 6th period. The rules don’t change because it’s an athletic event, and sometimes I think we forget that.” Lorenson said.

Avoce’s suspension has led to the creation of a movement at DHS called “Free Francis,” which was started by Avoce’s close friend junior Daniel Johnson. The protesters wear t-shirts around campus decrying the suspension.

“BREAKING: Men’s soccer team placed on probation”

(Published on BlueDevilHUB.com on Dec. 4, 2014)

About: Because I spoke to the Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner, I had some advanced knowledge of the incident and was able to break the news of the team’s probation quickly after a press release. I again incorporated a HUB game photo, a hyperlink to a video of the incident and a hyperlink to my previous story.

Senior Jesse Hopp is devastated after losing the section championship game to Oak Ridge 2-1 on Nov. 15.

Senior Jesse Hopp is devastated after losing the section championship game to Oak Ridge 2-1 on Nov. 15. (Photo: T. Oide)

By Kellen Browning,
Bluedevilhub.com Editor–

A press statement from the district released Thursday, Dec. 4, announced that the Davis High men’s varsity soccer team will be placed on probation for the upcoming 2015-2016 school year. This decision was made by the Sac-Joaquin Section branch of the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation), the governing body of high school sports in California.

Following an incident at the section championship game on Nov. 15 at Oak Ridge High that resulted in the suspension of seven DHS players who confronted a referee after a play, the CIF determined that “while the team will continue to play as scheduled, any infractions, violations or misconduct of CIF rules and regulations that occur during [next year’s season], could incur the team further sanctions,” according to the press statement.

“All that basically means,” Athletic Director Jeff Lorenson told The Hub, “is that any behavior outside of what’s expected in regards to aggressive nature, unsportsmanlike conduct, things like that, could lead to further sanctions such as denial of participation, school fines.”

While the status of the team is public knowledge, “Individual student disciplinary decisions made by the administration remain confidential,” the statement said.

Some students, like junior Francis Avoce–one of the suspended players–believe the punishments the soccer players received from DHS were too severe.

“Being suspended from school is not a proportional punishment for the wrong I’ve committed,” Avoce said in an earlier interview with The Hub.

Lorenson, however, said in the press statement that “The recent CIF sanctions and the decisions made by the high school administration are clear, appropriate and aligned.”

“Just like any athletes should, we’re gonna own up to our actions, learn from it and ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” Lorenson said.

“BREAKING: Eight cheerleaders quit over team dispute”

(Published on BlueDevilHUB.com on Jan. 8, 2016)

About: I broke this story hours before ABC Channel 10, and the article is already our most-viewed story since we started tracking stats in Nov. 2014.

Eight cheerleaders quit the team Thursday over complaints of bullying and lack of response from administration.

Eight cheerleaders quit the team Thursday over complaints of bullying and lack of response from administration. (Courtesy: R. Vitangcol)

By Kellen Browning,
Bluedevilhub.com Editor-in-Chief–

Six Davis High varsity cheerleaders–nearly half the varsity team–quit Thursday, Jan. 7 over charges of teammates bullying other teammates as well as lack of administrative response to complaints; two JV cheerleaders joined them. The departed cheerleaders include senior varsity captain Alyssa Vitangcol and a JV captain.

“The main reason why I quit was because of how hostile and unsafe the environment felt,” Vitangcol said. “It’s sad that only a few individuals have dominated how a practice would run. […] I wanted to make a stand and show that we shouldn’t allow this kind of behavior on our team. It isn’t fair to let these people get away and not learn from the consequences of their actions.”

Senior Kathleen Pan, who also quit, said the bullying included verbal abuse and online slandering of team members.

The HUB has sent emails and texts to cheer coach Tamara Reed and an email to Athletic Director Jeff Lorenson asking for comment but has not yet received responses.

Vitangcol said she sent emails to Superintendent Winfred Roberson, Lorenson, Principal William Brown and Vice Principals Tom McHale and Amelia Hess with a letter written by all the girls.

The letter, provided to The HUB by Pan, mentioned that “inappropriate and tormenting behavior” and “harassment” from teammates caused one cheerleader to quit earlier in the season, and says that “the coach was well aware of the situation, yet never fully acted to protect those victimized.”

Vitangcol says she sent Reed an email with a separate note expressing the girls’ frustration at the lack of response.

“Recently, we have felt betrayed over the fact that you have allowed such behavior to be accepted on this squad,” the girls said in the note. “We feel that action should have been taken place [sic] long before now. By having these individuals still practicing alongside us, we all feel unprotected and vulnerable to their harassment.”

Pan and Vitangcol named the cheerleaders they said have bullied others on the team, and The HUB has reached out to one of them but has not heard back.

With eight cheerleaders departed, senior Kalysta Holder, who is still on the team, says varsity and JV will be combined to bring the total team number up to 17–although Pan anticipates three more cheerleaders quitting soon.

“We will be combining teams and continuing on for basketball season. However, we won’t be doing competition season this year,” Holder said.

Holder said that at Thursday’s practice the team “talked about where we would be going forward from here.”

“We want to make the best out of the situation and the end of the season. We also discussed people leaving and how there aren’t hard feelings towards those that decided not to continue on with cheer,” she said.

The cheerleaders who quit are anticipating a meeting with the administration soon, and Pan says that they will be interviewed by Channel 10 News this afternoon.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available. 

“Allegations of cheerleader bullying under investigation”

(Published on BlueDevilHUB.com on Jan. 20, 2016)

About: I spoke with members of the administration to get an update on the cheer story, and included a photo of the new (smaller) team, a hyperlink to my earlier story and a hyperlink to the ABC video coverage of the incident.

“Men’s basketball sails past Marina in first round of Les Curry Invitational”

(Published on BlueDevilHUB.com on Dec. 18, 2015)

About: No one else was free to cover the game, so I exhibited my versatility by taking photos, keeping stats, interviewing and writing the story. I combined the photo gallery (available at the link) with strong writing and audio soundbites to make a run-of-the-mill recap more engaging.

By Kellen Browning,
Bluedevilhub.com Editor-in-Chief–

The Davis High men’s basketball team (4-3) withstood a strong defensive effort from powerhouse Marina High School (9-2) and emerged with a 58-48 victory in its first home game of the season on Thursday, Dec. 17. The first-round win earned the host Blue Devils a spot in the championship bracket of the Les Curry Invitational Tournament.

DHS, which entered Thursday night’s contest averaging 90.3 points per game (third in the nation), was held to a season-low 58 points and went just 14 of 52 from the three-point line. However, the Devils managed to hold off a fourth-quarter Vikings comeback thanks to strong play by senior Ryan Kreidler (13 points and three steals) and improved shooting from deep in the final period.

The Devils led 18-11 after the first quarter and 33-22 at the half thanks to senior Glen Welch’s second-quarter buzzer beater (Welch led DHS with 14 points), but the Vikings never fell too far behind. After several DHS turnovers, Marina trailed by just two points with about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. Feeling the pressure, the Devils sped their already-quick pace up even more.

After sinking two free throws, Kreidler snatched the ball from a Viking player on the following possession. Moments later, senior Tommy McTygue drained a three-pointer and the Devils regained the momentum with a 52-42 lead; the Vikings never threatened again.

Marina, which traveled from Southern California to attend the Les Curry tournament, lost senior Buzz Stafford to injury with 1:21 left in the second quarter. Stafford, who leads the Vikings with 18.1 points per game, limped off the court after a hard fall and did not return to the game.

Devil head coach Dan Gonzalez said Marina’s defense forced the Devils to adjust mid-game, which led to the high number of three-point attempts.

Thursday’s win sets the Devils up for a second-round rematch at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 18 against Rodriguez, a team DHS beat 92-62 in the season opener on Nov. 30. However, Gonzalez expects a more difficult match-up this time around. The winner of that game will play Saturday afternoon for the tournament title.

And despite the poor shooting night, Kreidler remains confident in his team’s style of play and chances of winning the tournament going forward.

Valentine’s Day website design

(Published on Feb. 14, 2016)

About: To accompany the popular #HUBlove Twitter campaign (social media explained under “Entrepreneurship”), I led the temporary Valentine’s Day website redesign.